by Steve Browne
This past election was touted as a battle for the soul of America. It seems by now America’s soul has been battled over more often than an alcoholic at a tent revival.
The way the two sides shaped up roughly, is one wishes to conserve a unique and precious tradition of freedom and individualism bequeathed us by the Founders of this nation. Hence the term “conservative,” from the verb, “to conserve.”
The other wishes to free everybody from the constraints of poverty, inequality and above all from the past, regarding tradition as little more than outmoded superstition at best. Hence the term “liberal,” from the Latin for “free.”
Conservatives see themselves as the natural inheritors of the Founding Fathers. Liberals are a bit more ambiguous, some looking to Europe for examples of the just society. Others see their plans as extending the freedoms and privileges the founders established for white males of property, to women, minorities and other previously disadvantaged groups.
Please note these stereotypes are drawn very broadly, and if they don’t fit what you think of yourself and the other side, please bear with me for a moment.
What I’d like to point out is, both sides manifest different aspects of the national character of America that have been here since our beginnings as a nation.
That doesn’t mean one program isn’t wrong and disastrous – whichever you believe it to be; it means that for good or ill they both reflect something deeply in our history.
There is such a thing as “national character.” Anyone who has lived abroad for any length of time sees this. A European will tend to ascribe this to “blood,” but it obviously can’t explain anything about our nation of immigrants.
We Americans have certain assumptions we share about how the world works, which are so much a part of our psyche we are mostly as unaware of them as a fish is of water.
I first noticed this when I started out as a teacher of English as a second language. I had a class of Asian ladies from several countries who were studying English to enter an American university.
At one point we had a discussion of national character, and what they observed about their own countries from the perspective of outside looking in. They invited me to try to look at my own country with a detached eye. I came up with an observation very off-the-cuff, but I don’t know as I’ve ever done better.
I told them, deep down inside, Americans believe all problems have solutions, and every situation, no matter how bad, can be improved.
I asked them what they thought of that.
They all looked blankly at me, until one said, “That’s not true.”
She was of course quite right. Some problems have no solutions and some situations cannot be improved, only lived with.
As a nation we have achieved great things with boundless optimism and a belief that nothing is impossible. We settled and transformed a continent in a historical blink of an eye. We created grand engineering marvels such as the Panama Canal, the Hoover Dam and the Interstate Highway system. We ended slavery – long regarded as a permanent and necessary institution of civilization. We improved the condition of laboring men and created the richest working class in the world.
But we’ve also driven our country to within shouting distance of a ruinous bankruptcy attempting to solve problems that remain intractable, and disrupted society almost to the point of collapse trying to create a utopia on earth.
The Founding Fathers held views that were both utopian, and highly pragmatic. They knew they were creating a new order in the world – but they carefully studied contemporary and historical examples of governments and alliances to learn how they worked, and why they failed.
The utopian impulse in our character is one source of the greatness of our country. But untempered by the pragmatism of the Founders, my yet be our ruin.
Browne is an award-winning reporter and columnist who entered journalism by accident while living and working in Eastern Europe from 1991 to 2004. He is the author of two books for English students: “Word Pictures: English as it is REALLY Used,” published in Belgrade, Yugoslavia and Novosibirsk, Russia, and “English Linguistic Humor: Puns, Play on Words, Spoonerisms, and Shaggy Dog Stories.” In 1997 he was elected an Honorary Member of the Yugoslav Movement for the Protection of Human Rights. He is currently living in his native Midwest, which he considers “the most interesting foreign country I have ever lived in.”